Sunday, September 18, 2011

My Son the Pagan


Buddhist mediation practice teaches that
thoughts are like clouds, which can be
gently pushed away to clear the "sky"
of the mind.

I was raised Catholic, and taught to believe that anyone who as not Catholic was going straight to the big broaster downstairs. The souls of unbaptized infants had a special place to go, called Limbo, where they could float in the ether until someone prayed them into the Pearly Gates. But everyone else, who had a conscious, had two choices: Catholicism or Hell. Even as a kid, that didn't play well with me. Growing up in the country, I had a lot of non-Catholic friends. Where they all going to Hell just because they weren't born Catholic? Sure my Baptist playmate, Christa, was a beast for taking the doll with the best hair when we played Barbies, but did that really buy her a ticket to the eternal inferno? Even then, it seemed harsh. I couldn't imagine that God was that judgmental. (And for the record, I believe the Catholic Church has backed down from this doctrine and anyone who is Catholic should feel free to bring me up to speed.) And yet, this is how I was raised. There was a comfort to feeling I was a member of an elite club for all eternity, but as I became older and started questioning other things, my Catholic faith fell away to softer, more yielding universal truths, which were a little more wishy-washy.
   As an adult, you can get away with a lot, but once you're a parent you find yourself faced with your beliefs—or lack there of—all over again. According to a recent article in Parenting magazine, almost one in six adults is not associated with any particular religion. Many parents are hit with the question, "What do I teach my kids about religion?"and come up short. I've struggled for years with what kind of spiritual practice to impart to Jack. When he was born, we did not have him baptized because we weren't attending a church, and it felt wrong to join just so we could appease a tradition and throw a party. 
   But when I began attending Buddhist services more than a year ago, I felt I had finally found the right fit. No, I didn't buy into all the more esoteric aspects of Buddhism, but the principles of loving kindness, of mindfulness and meditation all resonated clearly with me. Plus, there was incense and that reminded me of Catholic services held on Holy Days. Even if the icons were very different, Buddhism provided a sense of comfort that I hadn't known inside a more formal religious structure. Imparting Buddhist principles to a child is fairly easy because it's all about being mindful of others, thinking before we act or speak, looking outside our own limited viewpoint, and demonstrating compassion for all. For example, walking home from camp can provide opportunities for Buddhist practice—for both of us.
   Recently, I read that the Dalai Lama was about fourteen years old when he began his spiritual practice. Of course, he was groomed to be the Dalai Lama from the time he was recognized as such, but he didn't start his Buddhist training until later in his life. And according to Biblical Scripture, Jesus was twelve when he was found teaching in the temple. So there's some precedent here for a person embracing their sense of faith, not at birth, but at a time when they can make a more concerted decision about this very important aspect of their lives. So with this in mind, I decided that, by age 14, Jack should be ready to make a decision about a spiritual practice. Not that he has to choose a team to back for the rest of his life, but by age 14 I want him to hunker down and really learn about a religion—any religion—as part of his education.
  About a month ago, Jack accompanied me to Buddhist service on Tuesday night. I didn't expect him to sit criss-cross-applesauce on a big pillow with the Sangha, or read the prayers or meditate. I simply wanted to expose him to the practice I've embraced. He sat in the little vestibule, where we leave our shoes, and worked on his computer, writing a story called The Water Panda. When we left, we headed to Target to buy school supplies for the year. 
   "So what did you think of Buddhist practice?" I asked.
    "It was fine," Jack said.
    "Your Dad and I have never made you go to church, like a lot of your friends do," I said. "What do you think of that?"
    "It's fine," Jack said.
    "Well, I think by the time you're fourteen you should decide on a religion to study," I said.
    The backseat was silent.
   "You can choose any religion you want," I continued. 
   "I don't want to be a Buddhist," Jack said.
   "Why not?" I asked.
   "Because I don't want to shave my head and speak a foreign language," Jack answered.
   "You don't have to shave your head or learn Sanskrit!" I laughed. "I'm not shaving my head, and I certainly can't say all those chants yet either. So what religion do you think you might want to study?"
   "I think I want to go for Jesus," said Jack, in the same tone he proclaims that he's an Auburn fan.
   "Okay, that's great!" I said a little too brightly, trying to prove that I would honor his choice. The backseat was silent for a moment and then Jack piped up again.
   "What's the religion where they have a bunch of gods?" Jack asked.
   "Hmmm, do you mean like Poseidon and Zeus?"
    "Yeah! I want to be for them!"
    "Okay, so that's Greek and Roman mythology," I said. Jack has read the Percy Jackson series recently.
    "Yeah, I want to study mythology," said Jack. "I think that's what they do in Harry Potter."
   I smiled and shook my head. There's no telling what spiritual practice Jack will land upon in the next five years, but I feel quite certain my dear son will not turn out to be a pagan.
   Last week, Jack accompanied me to Buddhist practice again. He now likes to go because we have dinner at Dairy Queen beforehand. It feels a little like bribery, but I recall being enticed to attend Mass with the promise of donuts, so I suppose it's an age-old tradition. It would be difficult to force Buddhist practice on him anyway. I think he just likes being let into my world. So after he stuffed himself with chicken fingers and fries and a cherry flurry, we went to the Dharma center for service. 
   This time Jack came into the mediation room with me and he built a fort in the leftover pillows in the back of the room. He had his trusty Nintendo DSi turned on mute and was content for the duration.
   The service began with chanting a prayer in Tibetan. Since I can't form these words yet, I close my eyes and listen to the Lama's resonating voice. Many of the members of the Dharma center chant along, and as they prayed I heard Jack's little voice trying to incant the prayers along with them. After the service, we stayed for a while and ate cookies and drank tea—Jack content in his fort. When we got ready to go, Jack asked if I would buy some prayer beads for him and he picked out a little bracelet that was just his size. (Maybe he just loves bling but it was still sweet.)
    Back home, we got ready for bed, and he asked, "Mom, can we meditate after we read?" 
   Now, I know that, in part, this is a stalling tactic. The kid will do just about anything to stay bedtime. But how in the world could I tell him no? 
   I turned out the light. "Do you remember how to meditate?" I asked. 
   Jack's tried to meditate with me before. One night when he couldn't sleep and he came out to the living room and "sat" with me. 
   "Yes," he said, "You just try to clear your mind as thoughts come in." 
   I talked him through a basic method, "Your mind is like the sky and your thoughts are clouds. When a thought comes in, you just blow away as if it were a cloud." And then I explained to him why it's important to learn this practice, how he can use it when he feels anxious or upset. We "sat" quietly in meditation for a few minutes...until I heard him breathing evenly, sound asleep.

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